It’s been about a month since I made an epically bad decision that led to the loss of two of my three beehives, and I’m still angry about it. I’m not sure I ever won’t be angry about it. The truth is, after writing that post I realized that I’m not even sure why what I did (or didn’t do) killed those hives.
I definitely over-vented the hives, and I thought that led to yellow-jackets attacking them, though truthfully I never saw more than a handful of yellow jackets in or around the dead hives at a time (which is a bit strange, because they were still full of honey) and after reading more about it is possible that the yellow jackets weren’t the cause of the demise of those hives, but a few were simply taking advantage of the free honey after the fact. It’s also possible that over-venting the hives before the temps dropped into the 30’s for a few days just make it too cold for the bees to survive. Or maybe it’s because I had the hives open so close to sunset and the extra venting wasn’t the issue so much as the quick drop in temp before they could heat the hive back up? Some people suggested those two hives must have already been weakened from varroa mites for any of these things to affect the hive, which I don’t think is the case, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the weeks after the loss of those two hives it’s this: I just don’t fucking know. Anything.
I mentioned in that last post that it’s so easy to become paralyzed by the fact that there are so many variables (and so many differing opinions on what’s “right”) but, when it comes to beekeeping and winterizing your hives, you don’t have the option not to act. You can see just a small example of this play out in the comments on that post, including suggestions like:
- “The obsession with venting is first and foremost to blame. Year-round I put a clear plastic sheet on the top super then add a foam sheet in Winter followed by the telescoping cover, . Everyone is Europe is doing this, condensation is happening but not a factor.”
- “My first year, everyone was saying ‘Use screened bottom boards!’. So I did. Turns out, I couldn’t close them well enough in the winter to allow the bees to keep the box warm enough.” As soon as I went to solid bottoms, things improved a lot. I do vent a bit above my quilt boxes in the winter. (My remaining hive is on a screened bottom board, btw.)
Also, from the article I read (from a beekeeper in my area) prior to venting the two hives that died:
Which elicited exactly the number of swear words you would expect. Also, at this point I was two hours into building a box and running out of daylight…
Also, I hadn’t even started second–and triple, and quadruple–guessing myself about venting the quilt box, which, in the instructional post I read, was done with holes drilled in the side of the box and covered with wire mesh. (The idea is you have to let the wood chips dry out or they get moldy and also create problems for the bees.)
Of course, I panicked on all sorts of levels (too much venting? too many holes? should they be centered? is 1/4″ mesh enough? all the thoughts…) and I finally decided to do the same thing I did on the bottom of the box, 1/4″ mesh and then t-shirt material…
Here’s what the vents look like from the outside, except super blurry because I was still bleeding from the finger at this point and unable to take a proper iPhone picture…
It was maybe an hour before dark at this point, but still 60 degrees, so I felt okay about opening the hive to put the quilt box on.
Of course, I was not done second-guessing myself…
I keep a lot of pine shavings on hand because I use them as bedding for the donkeys and the chickens. I opened one cube of pine shavings, filled the box, started to worry that those pine shavings already had too much moisture in them (and all the problems that could cause!), emptied the box, opened a new, drier bag of shavings and filled the box up again.
FINALLY I took the box out to the hive and opened it up. There was a ton of activity in the hive and the bees seemed to be doing well but I’d read a lot about bees needing more food than usual with really warm temps in November (when there isn’t any pollen or nectar for them to forage for) so I made a game-time decision to remove the queen-excluder but leave the medium super full of honey (that normally I would remove) on the hive in case they need the extra food over the winter… it’s probably an additional 30 lbs of honey.
I also worried that the quilt box (being so light) might blow off in a strong wind, so I got some scrap wood and actually screwed it down the to box below it, which also helped eliminate some– but not all– of the gap created by attaching that 1/4″ mesh to the bottom of the quilt box.
I’ve had nightmares about that gap for weeks now.
I had also determined that my best course of action would be to remove the screen from my screened bottom board, and put the solid piece of plastic back in that also came with it, except the bees had sealed that thing in tight… so I settled for creating a wind-break on the open area of the bottom board.
(Still blurry because my finger was still bleeding.)
By this time it was basically dark, and overnight the temps dropped 40 degrees from the 60’s to well-below freezing, because this is Michigan, and that’s normal.
You can imagine, given my last experience winterizing the hives and how much I tried to think through every potential problem that could arise from what I was doing (and then changed course half a dozen times at each step), I basically expected that this was all a horrible mistake and all the bees were going to die.
It was in the 20’s for 48 hours, and I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and got the thermal camera out…
YES! This may just look like a blur of color (those purple lines are the top covers of the hives, for reference) but the yellow spot in the middle of the right means that the bees in that hive were still alive and generating heat!
It had been significantly colder for significantly longer than it had been when I lost the other two hives, which means the quilt box at least didn’t create any problems that resulted in the death of the hive, and at this point I will consider a win, although we still have a very long winter to get through.
If the amount of second guessing (and beyond) that I described in this post was as confusing and irritating and exhausting to read as it was to write, imagine what it was like being in my head for all of this…
So much of my life (and success) has come from diving head-first into things that it wasn’t immediately obvious I would succeed at. As a 22 year old girl, no one expected I could renovate a house (or build my own house addition)– I certainly didn’t have the skills or knowledge or tools at that point– but I always believed that I could figure it out. In fact, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t figure it out, and I looked at anyone who suggested otherwise like they’d lost their minds. Such is my confidence in my own abilities.
The farm, however, has added a new dimension to the challenges I take on… The stakes are higher. The cost of failure isn’t just time or money or another lesson-learned, but, occasionally, life.
Things that break on a house I can fix. Things I build incorrectly I can take apart and put back together again. But things I’ve tended throughout the years– trees, or grapevines, or chickens, or bees–well, the costs of my mistakes weigh more heavily here on the farm, and when I take these responsibilities on, I don’t take them on lightly. I don’t take them on assuming that I know everything, or that I’ll succeed without effort.
I very much want to be a good and knowledgeable beekeeper, which is challenging given all of the conflicting information out there and how difficult it is to determine if you’re doing the right thing. It was exhausting to re-live all the worry and second-guessing that went into building the quilt-box for this hive–and I don’t know that it makes a particularly good story to read–but for those of you that got through it, I thought it was important to show how difficult it can be to just move forward sometimes…
And yet, I think the important thing is that we do still move forward, even when it’s not obvious that we’ll succeed. It’s possible I’m just not cut out to be a beekeeper in the long run. I don’t know. It has, in fact, occurred to me that I might not be able to do this correctly… I might not be able to figure it out the way I’ve been able to figure out how to build houses. I used to think the secret to my success was that I “don’t believe in can’t” but now I wonder if it’s just as important to see clearly the possibility of your own failure– to fear what it will cost–and to have the courage to move forward anyway.
I don’t know yet if that will hold true for me and my bees… only time will tell.